Winter is coming for the blockbuster Christmas ad as traditional retailers struggle for survival

By Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Founder

November 16, 2017 | 6 min read

Once again, Britain’s major retailers have blown their budgets on The Big Christmas Ad. But they’re beginning to look desperate as the threat from online grows year on year.


Debenhams bagged Ewan McGregor for its Christmas ad

The parade of festive spirit vignettes is becoming more like an ad land version of Britain’s Got Talent, where everyone has a vote. Like BGT, the Christmas advert is also a firm feature on the news calendar with papers from the Telegraph to Metro wrapping up their ‘best and worst’ reviews of this year’s crop.

The current contenders for emotional Christmas loveliness include John Lewis’s Moz the Monster, Marks & Spencer’s tie-in with Paddington 2 and Waitrose’s nostalgic black and white Snowed In, set in a real Yorkshire pub. Meanwhile, Debenhams got Ewan McGregor to tell you a classic Cinderella panto tale of guy meets girl. Everyone say ‘Aw!’

So far so good, but Sainsbury’s has created a right stir this year with its polarising karaoke-style mash up Every Bit of Christmas. It’s more marmite than turkey as TV viewers took to social media with comments ranging from “shocking” and “worst advert yet” to “love it” and “good to see a Christmas advert different to everybody else’s.”

Tesco is facing the worst backlash on social media, though, with threats to boycott the store because their ad showed a Muslim family, among others, enjoying Christmas. The message of ‘Everybody’s Welcome’ can only apply to Christians, apparently.

Apparently, retailers, should beware of straying too far from the tried and tested Santa, turkey and gift narratives.

Let’s remember that among all the glitter and tinsel, the bottom line is to persuade people to spend their dwindling amounts of money in a blow-out binge. Fagin’s Got to Pick a Pocket or Two from Oliver might be more apt as a background track than, say, Waitrose’s rearrangement of Mykola Leontovych‘s Carol Of The Bells, Elbow’s version of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers for John Lewis or even Amazon’s choice this year of Roger Hodgson's anthem Give a Little Bit.

But behind the cosy festive glow and ‘all’s well with the world’ exterior, bricks and mortar retailers are reeling from a change of seismic proportions within the sector. They might be putting on a good Christmas TV show, but it’s more pantomime than West End blockbuster as they haemorrhage profits.

Christmas ads were supposed to seduce people into buying at full price, not discount. Now, Black Friday is traditionally the biggest retail day on record. It’s not Christmas that’s getting earlier every year, it’s the discount shopping. This year, post-Christmas sales have morphed into pre-Christmas sales and they’re starting as early as October. reports that the proportion of goods in stores being offered at discounts rose by 43% in October from 25-37%.

The big, shiny, cinematic Christmas brand ads designed to make consumers lose their heads – along with their hold on the purse strings – aren’t working anymore.

The reality is we are speeding towards an avalanche of Amazonisation. Amazon is like a snow plough cutting through traditional retailers’ profits.

And things just seem to keep getting worse for brick-and-mortar retail. Credit Suisse has predicted that one-quarter of America’s malls could close within the next five years, and Moody’s Investors Service gives a rating defined as ‘subject to very high credit risk’ to 22 major retailers. It’s a perfect storm as analysts show 15% to be at high risk of bankruptcy.

There’s another serious conversation to be had about the continuation of brands’ Christmas strategy, led by Big Issue founder and cross-bench peer Lord John Bird who has taken the initiative with his Poverty Taskforce. Christmas is a time when those in need feel it most acutely, when for many it’s becoming harder and harder to come in from the cold.

A quarter of a million people are homeless in England alone, and rough sleepers were up 16% to 4,134 on any given night. Food bank use is on the rise: the Trussell Trust says more than 1.8m three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in the past year – 436,000 to children.

No such hand-outs for our big brand retailers. Their carousel of Christmas ads might as well adopt Nearer my God to Thee as their soundtrack. It’s the last tune known to be playing on the Titanic as it sank.

Bang On to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove


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